After having presided over twelve executions, the last of which was botched, Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) cannot sleep and is becoming emotionally detached from life. When Death Row inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, Showtime's 'City on a Hill'), whose lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) has been working for tirelessly, believing in his claims of innocence, date is set, Bernadine can do nothing but hope for “Clemency.”
Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s first feature film was the Grand Jury prize winner at the 2019 Sundance Film festival and is nominated for 3 Film Independent Spirit Awards. It has many things to commend it, so why do I feel so conflicted about this film, which examines how modern day executioners must become dead themselves in order to do their jobs? It is not because Chukwu asks us to sympathize with them over those about to lose their lives, as they also get their due, as represented by Anthony Woods and the man, Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo), who preceded him.
In Chukwu’s film, we watch as one by one, those who support Williams in her work all gradually abandon her, their differing reasons all a cover for the obvious. There is something artificial in all this. We are being asked to believe that people who have chosen to work in a prison, including a long time associate, Major Logan Cartwright (LaMonica Garrett), and an ambitious Deputy Warden, Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn), find they no longer have the stomach to assist in carrying out death penalties which they surely must believe in to have been there in the first place. Williams herself makes a defensive case for how good she is at her job. One can understand the motivations of a defense attorney walking away, and maybe even a prison chaplain (Michael O'Neill), but an across the board desertion strains credulity.
That isn’t to say “Clemency” isn’t an effective anti-Death Penalty film. Chukwu takes more risks, is more artistically outside of the box in her choices, than the wider release “Just Mercy.” Take, for example, the typical church choir score used in “Just Mercy” and see how Chukwu upends the cliché by using an eerie interpretation of same to accompany one of Bernadette’s nightmares. The film begins with Bernadette inspecting the execution room prior to the carrying out of Jimenez’s sentence, the injection table raised vertically looking like a crucifix. The filmmaker offers us no background whatsoever on Jimenez, other than the fact that his mother (Alma Martinez), whom Bernadette ‘comforts’ with polite words offering little hope, is distraught and that the inmate himself is terrified.
Then we witness the execution itself. Bernadette oversees everything from within the room, curtly nodding as a sign to proceed. But the paramedic tasked with placing the needles cannot find a good vein until his third try, Bernadette becoming as agitated as Jimenez at the delay. Once we see the fluids run through the tubing, everything seems to be progressing normally, Jiminez’s heartbeat slowing. Then suddenly he spasms. In the witness room, his mother, clutching rosary beads, panics. Blood pours from the injection site, the vein infiltrated. Bernadette pulls the curtain over the glass separating the room from the witnesses. It may not be the most horrific botched execution scene ever filmed, but it is a powerful reminder that we are kidding ourselves thinking any of this is ‘normal.’
With the exception of scenes focusing on Woods’ growing horror at the likelihood of having to actually face a date, everything is from Bernadette’s point of view. After work, she drinks Johnnie Walker Black in a dimly lit, black leatherette boothed bar. Her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) frets over the sleeplessness that takes her from their bed (later, she’ll arrive home to a seduction scene on an anniversary she’s clearly forgotten and, try as she might, be unable to respond). More than once, prison underlings like Major Cartwright will have to resort to calling her by her first name to snap her out of stony silences. She toes the party line with an increasingly angry Marty, the defense lawyer another who quits the scene, telling Woods he will be his last client. In a chilling scene, she recites execution day steps to Anthony like an automaton, her voice rising like a customer service rep making a sales pitch whenever he is allowed to choose an option.
But there is something too studied about Woodward’s performance, no matter how rational her choices. In parallel, Hodge also shuts down, his Anthony paralyzed with abject horror at his upcoming fate. But Hodge has run the gamut of grief in his performance, at first denying the possibility that his sentence may actually be carried out, then railing against it (‘I say when I die!’).
The production is appropriately somber and stylishly spare, with the exception of Bernadine’s wood paneled office, a place so pedestrian as to undercut her position. Shooting in 2.39 : 1 widescreen, cinematographer Eric Branco alternates close ups and off center, angled two shots with long shots emphasizing prison corridors. Woodward’s costuming (Margaux Rust) favors monotone suit and jacket combos which begin in navy and work their way towards white. Kudos to attention to detail as well – watch for the increasing various containers of water near Woods as his execution approaches after it was determined Jimenez’s vein infiltrated because the prisoner drank no water on the day of his death.
Robin also gives "Clemency" a B-.
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